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Russian spy case 'right out of a John le Carré novel'

The FBI arrested 11 people last week in a Russian spy case, according to court documents unsealed Monday. The alleged spies were on 'long-term deep-cover assignments,' the documents say.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / June 28, 2010

In this courtroom sketch, Anna Chapman, left, Vicky Pelaez, second from left, the defendant known as 'Richard Murphy,' center, the defendant known as 'Cynthia Murphy,' second from right, and the defendant known as 'Juan Lazaro' are seen in Manhattan federal court in New York, Monday. The Murphys, Lazaro, and Pelaez are among the 10 people the FBI arrested Monday for allegedly serving for years as Russian spies, with the goal of penetrating US government policymaking circles.

Elizabeth Williams/AP

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At just about the same time President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were chowing down at Ray’s Hell Burger in Washington Thursday, FBI agents were closing in a Russian spy ring.

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With one of the alleged spies about ready to leave the country Sunday, the FBI closed in, arresting 10 people – some of who had been in the US sending intelligence back to Moscow for a long time, according to court papers unsealed Monday.

The court papers offer details on their lives and activities: Many of those arrested were couples sent to the US with fake identification, using American names like Murphy and Heathfield and Foley. Some names were picked from deceased individuals. And some raised families to an attempt to blend in.

In addition, the spy ring told handlers back in Moscow that they had gotten information from a former US legislative counsel to Congress on turnover at the head of the CIA, made contact with an individual who works for a US research facility that works on small yield, high penetration nuclear warheads, and planned to start to build a network of students in Washington. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph misstated the agency where high-level turnover is said to have occurred.]

From the court papers it does not appear that any of the spies provided the same sort of information as former FBI agent Robert Hanssen who was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2002 for spying for the Soviet Union and Russia for two decades. His spying played a role in the deaths of at least three US spies.

“It’s right out of a John le Carré novel,” says Stan Twardy, a former US attorney for the state of Connecticut and now a partner at Day Pitney LLP in Stamford, Conn. “It will interesting to see how it plays out next couple of days and weeks from an international point of view and law enforcement point of view.”

What's next for the accused

From a law enforcement point of view, the US is expected to convene a grand jury to issue an indictment.

On Friday, the US issued a complaint. According to a Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd, an indictment sometimes follows a criminal complaint within 30 days. The complaint charges the 10 people – an eleventh person is still being sought – with conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian federation. Nine of the individuals are also charged with money laundering.

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